Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Altar at Jamay & Other Madnesses of Crowds

Tony Burton, in his excellent Western Mexico: A Traveller's Treasury, recounts the tale of a priest, Jose Maria Zarate, who became so enamored of Pope Pious IX that he erected a "wedding cake" stele in the plaza of Jamay, Michoacan, Mexico. Burton says that "few towns outside Italy and the Vatican can boast papal monuments on this scale": the pope pillar is over 111 feet in height, about thirty yards of a football field. Built during three years of the 1870's, the tower depicts Pious's birth, early years, appointment as archbishop, imprisonment by King Victor Emmanuel in 1870, and writings, including his explanation of the Immaculate Conception and his explanation of the concept of the infallibility of papal authority.

Then, Burton laments the "cost" of the monument: "...The priest responsible for this monument paid for it by selling the superb baroque high altar of his eighteenth century parish church; its whereabouts today are unknown."

It would be interesting to speculate on the whereabouts and circumstances of the "superb baroque high altar," but what is certain is that the story illustrates the arbitrariness and capriciousness of the clergy and the gullibility and naivety of the faithful. Any student of religion knows that the decor and aesthetic appeal of a place of worship and its accoutrements -- especially an altarpiece -- is as essential to inspiration as the theatrical enunciations of the celebrant, the wafting of frankensense and other burnt offerings, and the organ and choral music; in short, everything necessary to production in the congregation a discrete altered states (d-ASC).

Sell the alter, you're selling millions of prayers. You're selling a venerated object. You're selling a collector of hopes, wishes, desires. Forget the parishoners, promulgate a pope. One is left with the one question: Why?

Henry Ford said "history is bunk." (Of course, he did all he could to alter history, even supporting the rise of Adolph Hitler -- but that is another blog.) Santayana said we must learn from history if we don't wish to repeat it. I'll take Santayana any day. Now, what about the history of Pope Pious IX?

What history tells us about Giovanni Maria Mastai-Ferretti is that he was the last pope to hold "temporal" powers. To put it country simple, he symbolized pro-theocratic wealth-grabbing. Victor Emmanuel was simply acting out of democratic principles. He never "imprisoned" Pious IX; Pious IX simply decided to play martyr and stay home, avoiding visits to his former papal states -- a propaganda ploy. Vindictively, Pious IX paid the king back by having him excommunicated. (Whatever happened to turning the other cheek?) Victor Emmanuel went on to unify Italy, torn apart by foreign intervention and occupation. Apparently, Victor Emmanuel thought the Vatican as culpable as Austria.

The selling of the baroque altar in Jamay doesn't hold a candle to what the Spanish clergy did in places like Cholula, where one of Mexico's largest pyramids, the Mixtec temple of Tlalchihualtepetl was sacked. To think what we could have learned about an ancient civilization had the zealot missionaries not ordered the destruction of their codices and demolition of their architectural wonders. What a sneaky way to sucker the faithful into following a new monotheistic supersitition by simply replacing their polytheist pantheon, even going so far as to cover the templo mayor with a Catholic church.

Give me a beautifully executed altarpiece to a statute of a pope any old day. Jose Maria Zarate, wherever you are: You should be ashamed of yourself. Apparently, the area of Mexico southeast of Lake Chapala is full of wonders. Nearby, Burton writes, at the town of Ocotlan, on October 2, 1848, an earthquake caused massive fatalities. At a mass for the dead the following day, Burton says, "a resplendant cloud suddenly appeared in an otherwise blue sky, producing a vision, seen by thousands, of Christ on the Cross. The site is now marked by an obelisk."

Here we go again: putting up a monument; only, this time, not to a pope but an apparition. One thinks of the hundreds of sightings of Jebus of late, not only in clouds but Cheetos, slices of bread, torn circulars pasted to brick walls -- in short, anywhere and everywhere someone could see anything they were hoping to see and were actively looking for. Mass hysteria and the behavior of crowds. Delusion, pure and simple. I am reminded of the delightfully wicked Campo del Miraculo sequence in Fellini's La Dolce Vita.

In that film, Marcello, the newspaper reporter, is sent on assignment to the sticks, where a couple of mischievous children have claimed visitations by the Virgin. (Fellini gives every indication they've made it all up to get attention.) When a violent thunderstorm breaks out, drenching the field where the Virgin was last seen near a particular tree, the children suddenly run out to greet her, causing a riot to break out, everyone wanting to see the Virgin for themselves. In the melee, several crippled persons there for healing are trampled by the crowd. (Right out of a Wal-Mart Black Friday.) Nobody sees the Virgin, least of all Marcello or the movie audience.

The point of the Ocotlan and Campo del Miraculo illustrations of post hoc reasoning is simply that faith makes people delusional. I can find any figure in any carpet I want to see in it. But what you see is not what you get. It's even more absurd to claim that such things "prove" the existence of "God." Sometimes a face in a Cheeto is just a baked-on rough spot. Sometimes a cloud is only a cloud: people swore they saw the face of Satan in the smoke over Baghdad when the U.S. invaded post-9/11. Some Iraqis to this day see the face of Satan every time they look at George W. Bush. Anything means anything to anyone who wants to believe it so.

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